(Photo: First Run Features)
Some biologists have argued that there’s no legitimate taxonomic reason for human beings and chimpanzees to be in separate genera. (We’re Homo, they’re Pan.) Any other two animals so closely genetically related, they claim, would be considered different species within the same genus; it’s only our own ego that insists on the dividing line. While that’s still very much a minority viewpoint, animal-rights attorney Steven Wise, who heads the Nonhuman Rights Project, has spent the past several decades struggling to convince the U.S. courts of its legitimacy. Unlocking The Cage, a documentary by the team of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (The War Room, Only The Strong Survive), chronicles Wise’s recent efforts to secure a writ of habeas corpus for various chimpanzees that (or is it “who”?) are currently locked up in zoos or research labs. This requires persuading a judge that a chimpanzee counts as a non-human person, in much the same way that courts have decided that, say, a corporation does.
Some of Wise’s arguments are stronger than others. Early on, he cites great apes, cetaceans (dolphins, whales, etc.), and elephants as animals that should legally qualify as “persons,” based on his contention that they demonstrate “theory of mind” and other humanlike attributes. That’s still a matter of significant scientific debate, actually (though few would deny that the above are among the smartest animals); in any case, it seems like a somewhat arbitrary line to draw, as opposing counsel in these cases often notes. Wise’s suggestion to a reporter that one chimp’s captor should move into the seven-room cage himself, if he thinks it’s such a wonderful place to live, is also pretty dopey—humans preferring not to inhabit underground tunnels doesn’t mean that naked mole rats aren’t perfectly happy there. Unlocking The Cage favors superficial sound bites like this, no doubt because complex legal arguments (one judge’s decision on the question of chimpanzee personhood runs 33 pages) don’t make for scintillating cinema.
Truth is, none of this documentary really does. Mostly, the film (reportedly set in motion by Wise, who sought out Hegedus and Pennebaker) seems designed to create awareness. But Wise doesn’t accomplish much, apart from what he terms moral victories, over the three or so years that the camera follows him and his team, and what he does accomplish has already been heavily covered in the news, making this project feel redundant. Much of Unlocking The Cage consists of clips from appearances Wise has made on various TV shows, including The Colbert Report. The most interesting footage provides a look at the New York State Supreme Court, which allowed Hegedus and Pennebaker to film Wise arguing for his petition… but this backfires a bit, because the judges ask genuinely probing, pertinent questions that make the whole matter seem even murkier than it did before the film began. In short, this is yet another doc that would make a first-rate book or lengthy article, gaining almost nothing from its chosen medium apart from (maybe) greater exposure. There’s no legitimate taxonomic reason for this material to be designated a film.